We're ramping up our coverage in anticipation of The Only Game That Matters this weekend. Typically, I'd just pop in at the end of the week and drop a few thoughts on what Alabama needs to do to win their game on Saturday, but a game of this magnitude, played between two teams so equally matched, warrants quite a bit more than that.
So, leading up to the game, it's my goal to bring you a column-a-day feature focusing on a particular matchup or aspect of the game that I think will have a significant impact on the outcome.
As you might have guessed from the title, I'm interested in turnovers today. Turnovers are an aspect of the game that I usually don't even bother with when I dish out my weekly pre-game advice to the Tide because it's such a no-brainer topic. Of course it helps to lose fewer turnovers than you gain if you hope to win the game. Duh. In fact, only once in the last 6 seasons (dating back to Les Miles' first year at LSU) has a team lost the turnover battle and still won this game (LSU in 2007). It almost goes without saying. But what interests me so much about the role turnovers will play in this game is how pathologically efficient both teams have been at holding onto the football this season.
LSU is currently #1 in the nation in fewest turnovers, having lost only 3 all year. Alabama isn't far behind, coming in at #5 with just 8 turnovers on the season.
As it happens, both teams are also pretty good at taking the ball away from their opponent. LSU has gained 18 takeaways to this point, while Bama has 14. Now let's see how that matches up...
Alabama's 8 giveaways vs. LSU's 18 takeaways.
LSU's 3 giveaways vs. Alabama's 14 takeaways.
Something's gotta give, right? I have some thoughts...
Firstly, I think both teams' success at holding onto the football starts with their running backs. LSU and Bama are run-first teams who favor bruising running backs that don't shy away from contact. These guys are constantly inviting defenders to jar loos or rip out the football, and it's amazing that it so rarely happens. Neither team is expected to alter their gameplan much on Saturday, so whichever group of backs is able to maintain that standard of ball security against the most violent defense they'll face all year will give their team an advantage.
Secondly, the lonely "1" in LSU's interceptions thrown column is pretty amazing. I'll have more to say about that and the man that threw it later in the week when I talk quarterbacks, but Alabama's interceptions thrown stat is fairly impressive, as well. The number is 5, but what's startling is that 4 of those were thrown in the season opener against Kent State, that being the game when AJ McCarron was pressing too much to win the job and Phillip Sims got his first taste of FBS game speed. Following that game, McCarron went on an incredible, unexpected streak of 150+ passes without an interception that lasted until the first series of the Tennessee game. He responded to that early adversity by spearheading the Tide's blistering 2nd half spanking of the Vols to the overall tune of 284 yards through the air and a pair of touchdowns. What I'm saying is this: Since McCarron got comfortable in the job, the QB play for both teams has been about even as far as ball security is concerned.
In fact, of Alabama's 8 turnovers, 7 were given up against what you might call "lesser" FBS competition (5 lost to Kent State, 2 to North Texas). Against Penn State and SEC foes, the Tide was flawless in the turnover column prior to that aforementioned pick served up to Tennessee. When they are "locked in" mentally vs. an opponent they respect, they just don't give up the ball easily.
Of course, the x-factor at play here is that human turnover machine himself, Tyrann Mathieu. All memes aside, with 2 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries on the season, you might say he has a tendency to get to the ball and make things happen, having personally accounted for nearly a third of LSU's takeaways and whatnot. He seems to be very much "in the zone" like Robert Lester was for Bama last year. When there was a ball up for grabs, you could bet Lester would be there.
The Tide really doesn't have a guy like that this year (Lester has played well but seems to have lost his "football magnet" mojo), and if there's one thing I'd say the defense is lacking to put it over the top, that's it: the defensive game breaker, the guy who consistently creates big plays and swings momentum. I think Courtney Upshaw has the capability to be that guy, and he's shown flashes of it in certain games (if he could play Florida every week, he'd get drafted #2 after Andrew Luck), but he struggles with the "consistently" part of the description for whatever reason. If he can keep his motor going all night and be the Tide's own one-man terror spree, I think it will greatly affect their ability to pick up some turnovers.
I think it all boils down like this:
For Alabama, the backs will take care of themselves. If they can keep a handle on Mathieu's whereabouts, there's plenty reason to believe McCarron can execute the quick passing game without turning the ball over, as long as he doesn't let the enormity of the moment get in his head (which he's shown no inclination towards yet).
For LSU, if they can stick to what brought them to this point (pound the running game and don't take chances through the air while they wait for defense/special teams to win the field position battle), it's difficult to imagine even Alabama's defense having any more success wrestling the ball away from them than anyone else has thus far.
My guess is that with both teams getting 2 weeks to prepare their quarterbacks for what they're going to see on Saturday, we're going to get a fairly clean game so long as each team is allowed to stay in it's comfort zone. I think if we start seeing a lot of turnovers, it will be because one or both defenses have successfully forced their opponent to have to push the ball down field, requiring the QBs to take deeper drops and make more complex reads that I'm not sure they're capable of.